D. Clark, 1903-2005
honored posthumously in Frankfort
worked up until his death in June at age 101
Helen E. McKinney
FRANKFORT, Ky. (August 2005) To say that Dr. Thomas D. Clark
devoted his life to Kentucky history is an understatement. Clark lived,
breathed and ate Kentucky culture, traditions and folklore.
Clark died June 29 at the Mayfair Nursing Home in Lexington,
Ky. He was just shy of his 102nd birthday.
Earlier in the year, the Kentucky General Assembly overwhelmingly voted
to rename the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, Ky., for Clark.
New, gold lettering was unveiled on July 9, as hats flew skyward in
honor of Clark. Instead of being a birthday party, Hats Off to
Kentucky History was a memorial for the well-known state historian,
a day filled with reminiscences of Clarks Kentucky.
A roster of the days activities included a panel discussion of
the states future by former Kentucky governors Julian M. Carroll,
Brereton C. Jones and Paul E. Patton. A Hometown History Fair was erected
in front of the building. It was comprised of various museums and historical
organizations, such as Cumberland Gap National Park, the Kentucky Derby
Museum and Kentucky State University.
Clark was born July 14, 1903, in Mississippi. His mother was a teacher.
He attended a neighborhood school until second or third grade, and then
went through the seventh grade at his mothers school. On his 16th
birthday he went aboard a dredge boat, digging mud, water and grease
for two years before realizing this was not the way he intended to live
the rest of his life.
By September 1920, Clark was without a job and no prospects for the
future. He was able to gain admittance to an agricultural high school,
Choctaw County Agricultural High School. He attended the school for
Clark had no money to further pursue his education. After high school,
his father allowed him to take 10 acres of his best farmland. Clark
put a cotton crop in the ground himself, and this crop gave him the
financial support to attend the University of Mississippi in 1925.
Clark came to Kentucky and earned his master's degree from the University
of Kentucky in 1929 and began teaching there in 1931. He earned his
doctorate from Duke University one year later. During this time, he
worked long and hard into the night, researching and writing. In 1942,
he became head of the history department at UK.
Throughout his lifetime, he sustained a passion for building library
and archive collections. It gets in your blood. Just the challenge
of collecting the material, he told UK history professor David Hamilton
in a 2004 interview.
He labeled the biggest thrill of his career as having obtained the Calk
Family Papers for the Kentucky History Center. He worked on the
Calk Family Collection for 70 years, said Margaret A. Lane, assistant
to the director of the Institutional Advancement Branch Manager for
the History Center. The Calk manuscript dates to the time of pioneer
provided by the
Ky. History Center
late Dr. Thomas Clark
was honored July 9 in Frankfort, where they
named the Ky. History
Center after him.
Clark and Libby Jones were both responsible for acquiring
the Woodburn Collection, said Lane. This is a similar collection of
personal items and memoirs of the Woodburn family, of which Jones is
a member. Through the familys generosity, visitors to the center
can view this collection and learn more about a Kentucky familys
Clark is credited with saving and archiving the state records collection.
When Gov. Albert Happy Chandler took office, the records
were in a horrible condition, stacked in piles in the basement of the
Capitol. Clark was the driving force behind developing the Kentucky
Library and archives building, UKs state archive collections,
the University Press of Kentucky and the Kentucky History Center.
He had a dream for many years, said Lane. Clark wished that
Kentuckys history, heritage and artifacts too precious to be housed
in the distilleries would be preserved and displayed for the public.
Since 1838, the History Center has rented a space in an old distillery
to store its growing collection of artifacts.
Since 1999, the center has housed the 80-member society staff, collections,
research library, exhibit galleries, outreach and educational programs
and the 1792 store in a 167,000-square-foot facility. This headquarters
cost $30 million to build and has welcomed more that 1 million visitors.
Lane co-authored a book with Clark in 2002, "The Peoples
House: Governors Mansions of Kentucky." It was his
31st and my first, said Lane. I was the novice and he was
At first Lane was a little intimidated, thinking, I have no right
to be working with this man.
But Clark was in on the project from the get-go. Lane had been advised
to team with a serious historian for this project. She went to Clark
for advice and upon their second meeting he asked Lane, Margaret,
how much of this book would you like me to write? Clark went on
to write 15 chapters of historical narratives, said Lane. The book evolved
into a synopsis of Kentucky history for the past 200 years.
Lane had ample credibility to pen the book herself, since she was executive
director of the Governors Mansion for 12 years. She had access
to antiquated documents and files and was always distressed no
one pulled the histories together, she said. Lane spent seven
years researching material to include in the book.
Clark was 95 when Lane met him. He had taught, written and researched
for 60 years, she said. What she learned from him about writing and
the publishing business provided her with good, solid guidelines for
her book. Some of the best advice Clark gave her was to never
write what you cannot substantiate, Lane said.
Clark was the writers writer, said Prospect, Ky.,
resident Jim Cummings. Cummings owns his own graphic advertising business
and had the opportunity to meet Clark during a lecture series that Clark
was giving in Kentucky. What impressed Cummings most about Clark was
his sincerity and knowledge. He believed in what he wrote,
And why doubt him, when he had lived through a large portion of the
events he wrote about, says Cummings. He was one of the most underrated
historians in the United States. He helped set the standard of other
historians coming up to todays era.
Many wonder who will replace Clark; who can be worthy enough to slip
on his well-worn shoes? He traveled all over Kentucky, down the many
back roads and sat on many a country stores front porch to extract
tales from the locals and give credence to their oral traditions. While
not being specific, Lane said, We have some very good historians
in Kentucky. But can they live to be 102 and still be called a
Before his death, Clark had planned what was to become of his personal
collection of research material. Years of notes were donated to Lindsey
Wilson College several years ago, said Lane. Others are housed at the
UK special collections and some at the History Center.
Clark was once asked why he chose to be a historian. His replied that
a good historian would know something about his factual background.
Secondly, not all historians can write with grace, but historians should
write something that the public can easily read and understand. He also
believed a historian should take an active role in his institution and
various related associations.
A good historian never slights the classroom, Clark said.
He loved the classroom and its students. He taught at the University
of Kentucky for 33 years and was head of the history department from
1935 until 1964. In 1968, Clark taught at Indiana University, where
he wrote a three-volume history of the school.
When asked by Hamilton what advice would he give a graduate student
today, Clark replied, Get out and become a historian on your own.
Clark had been working on his memoirs before his death. The University
Press of Kentucky plans to publish them in book form in 2006.
For more information on the Kentucky History Center or
Dr. Thomas D. Clark, visit: www.history.ky.gov.
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